Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Is Moonlighting The New Gig (Economy)?

With millennials moving into mid to senior management roles, and the Gen-Z gradually becoming the core working part of the workforce, we are relearning what constitutes as 'employment'

Is Moonlighting The New Gig (Economy)?
Is Moonlighting The New Gig (Economy)?

When one works for an organisation, while simultaneously taking up additional employment roles and jobs or does a side business, typically without the employer's knowledge, it is called moonlighting. This practice has been prevalent for many decades and will continue to exist in some shape or the other. If we introspect critically for reasons why people moonlight, it’s not always about more money. 

It can be for variety of other reasons: a passionate hobby could be one more reason.  During the pandemic, there was an increase in digital and a resultant demand for IT professionals, leading to moonlighting. With the availability of gig platforms readily (like Fiverr, Upwork, Guru, Freelancer, people per hour, topcoder) available to all, there is far more access.  This is why it is important to understand the intersection of Gig Economy, Millennials & genZ (GEMZ).

The gig economy is a free-market system in which businesses work with independent freelancers, instead of hiring full-time workers. India’s gig sector is expected to grow to over USD 450 billion by 2024. A 2021 global study about millennials found that 64 per cent of full-time millennial workers, want to work in the gig workforce. The pandemic lockdown, remote working, understanding that many knowledge work is possible to be done with hybrid or remote work has effected many a consequent societal behavioural changes. 

The work from home for past two years has also shifted expectations from the workforce. The human capital experts have to strive to learn to measure work impact as output instead of time and location of work as input. Productivity and efficiency have to be measured agnostic to location and proximity with the employees.

With millennials moving into mid to senior management roles, and the Gen-Z gradually becoming the core working part of the workforce, we are relearning what constitutes as “employment.” The key doubt is this: “does gig working promote flexibility, empowerment and entrepreneurship at work, or is it really a form of opportunistic exploitation?”. This is where the question of interpreting what is moonlighting becomes an important HR question.

Light On Moonlighting

Under the Indian Law, there is no restriction regarding moonlighting. There is absolutely no restriction, as to the number of places an employee could work, except if the employee is working in a factory. Section 60 of the Factories Act, 1948 restricts factory employed from any second parallel employment. 

So technically, as long as the employment terms do not prohibit employees from moonlighting, it cannot be stopped. Some organisations in their employment letter explicitly state that the employee needs to take prior permission to undertake any other business or employment, even if it’s honorary capacity.

It is unethical to work on moonlighting projects using company time, or even calling up sick, to focus on the moonlighting project and/ or using company resources, like office premises, laptop and stationery. One aspect of multiple work priorities is failing to stay committed and doing justice to the primary role. Building a successful career requires commitment and one may end up sacrificing long term goals for short term gains. 

The current industry angst seems to be vented against the junior to mid management folks. Will it be of any umbrage to the senior leaders, if we call out their presence on various Boards and industry bodies as moonlighting? Many of those roles add to their personal branding and professional growth, and not just to the main entity they work in. 

If the Bossman can meet his wealth manager to plan his personal investment allocation during office hours, and if the bossman can be on advisory boards that also offer compensation or individual social recognition, will that be seen as moonlighting? We argue that sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander as well. 

Services Sector And Its Pain 

With covid lockdown, has resulted rapid digital adoption, and the technology firms have benefited with newer projects that needs larger workforce. We saw the emergence of Great resignation. We saw the digital fatigue syndrome. While the tech and tech services companies are in a boom business cycle, their recruitment drive is on full steam. They are battling higher employee attrition rates and increased wage bills to retain talent. 

Some of the industry leaders are against moonlighting and go to the extent of calling it crooked, few others feel it is acceptable as long as the original employer is kept informed about the moonlighting. Isn’t it a dichotomy to expect employees to inform about moonlighting - just because they may not trust that the main original employer is not giving them adequate opportunities or compensation?

Other side of the argument is this: Employment is a contract between an employer who engages the employee for a certain time duration daily. Apart from that time window, the employee should be free to do what (s)he wants, as long it is not in conflict with the efforts of the business of the employer. Some of the new age tech / digital companies have adopted this stand. 

The concerns of the industry have to be noted and addressed adequately. These include worries of violation of confidentiality of projects being worked upon, data access & maintaining data governance, Intellectual Property rights being misused are a few cases in point. For example, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is also changing the way IT companies’ contracts with their EU clients. 

It is seeking to ensure that their staff working on EU projects actually work from their designated office space and not from any other location. So is the newer formed contracts with many other US clients. The challenge for the tech industry in India is not just to recruit larger number of additional workforce, but to get them back into offices.

Moonlighting will stay in some form though. We opine that the industry will not be able to stop people from moonlighting. Even if they did stop a few people with threat of dismissal from their current job or blacklisting or any penalties, over a point in time, we need to remember the reality check. 

  • Youngsters and the younger generation might see these as vindictive and oppressive practices. Organisational branding gets impacted.
  • These younger generation want to have the experience of multitasking with multiple types of projects - for their learnings and to increase their earnings. That cannot be slowed down only by the nature of engagement for the core job.
  • Companies cannot afford to get into litigation mode with workforce for this moonlighting reason. They would rather use those resources to find ways to understand and engage the GEMZ stakeholders.
  • Industries have to learn how to solve the issues listed above, with the ability of a consensus building, and not from position of hierarchical power.
  • If the employee aspirations, their emotional intelligence development, newer learning expectations are not being met by their core employment, moonlighting will increase. It is not just about additional financial gains. Companies would rather learn how to tap into & to increase the potential of their talent force.

Indian IT managers who have lived in the US & pitched for businesses there over the past 3 decades have seen the usage & benefits & efficiency of remote working. It has been common for talent to get into the city office only once or twice a week. There are learnings from those markets for knowledge workers. 

The Indian gig economy now includes knowledge workers too, cutting across age groups, especially across our service sector. Along with the usage of tech and digital capabilities, Corporate India also has to learn the ways of GEMZ. Efficiently utilising human talent capabilities is not just about getting headcount into the office, but more about making each of those heads, count!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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